BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — Three years have passed since the Nanooks of Alaska-Fairbanks (15-15-4) last played at Joe Louis Arena in the Super Six, but that drought ended Saturday when the eighth-seeded Nanooks completed their upset sweep of fifth-seeded Bowling Green (16-16-4) by another 6-3 count at the BGSU Ice Arena.
Aaron Lee scored two goals for the Nanooks and freshman Wylie Rogers made 34 saves on 37 shots to win his first career playoff series for his hometown team.
Once again, UAF grabbed an early lead and wouldn’t look back despite three different comebacks by BG.
“We talked about how tonight we were going to face adversity and things weren’t going to go our way,” said UAF head coach Tavis MacMillan, who was coaching his second career playoff game.
“The bottom line was how we were going to react in those situations and I’m really proud of the way our guys played tonight and battled back — responding in the right way every time something happened to us.”
BG was unbeaten in its last 10 home playoff games coming into Friday, and had never lost a playoff series at home. The Nanooks ended the first streak with Friday’s win, and Saturday used first-period goals to propel them to their first playoff series win since a first-round sweep of Ferris State at home three seasons ago.
Lee opened the scoring at 15:44 as, just like the previous night, the Nanooks capitalized on their first power play. His rebound chance off Curtis Fraser’s shot from the left side of the crease found a hole on the right side past goaltender Jordan Sigalet.
Then, with the period 52 seconds away from ending, Jared Sylvestre stole a puck in the left circle and fired it over to Corbin Schmidt. Schmidt found Ryan Muspratt alone on the left side of the crease, and his shot found a hole on the left side of Sigalet to make it 2-0 UAF heading into the intermission.
“Playing with the lead is huge, and when you have the lead you can’t sit back,” said Lee of the early advantage. “You’ve got to keep going at them and I think that’s something we did in this series. We didn’t control the game and trap — we kept going after them and that was huge.”
UAF outshot BG 16-8 in the first period, but the Falcons charged back in the second, trying to keep their season alive.
James Unger’s backhand in front off a nice steal and pass by BG defenseman Michael Hodgson went over Rogers’ shoulder to get BG back in at 2-1 at the 7:50 mark.
However, the Nanooks broke the Falcon momentum at the 16:17 mark when Ryan McLeod, the star of Friday night’s game, stole the puck from the BG defense just past the BG blue line and poked it ahead to a rushing Kyle Greentree. Greentree’s shot from the slot found the top of the net after bouncing off Sigalet to put UAF back up two after being outshot 12-9 in the period.
BG freshman defenseman Mike Nesdill tried to lead a final comeback attempt when he found the net from the top left circle on the power play at 2:02 of the final period. It was BG’s first of two power-play goals on the night as the Falcons finished 2-for-4 with the man advantage. Fairbanks finished 1-for-2.
Before BG could get its next power-play goal, Lee stuck in his second goal of the night, which proved to be the game-winner, at the 11:00 mark. His shot in front went top shelf after hitting his skate and going off a BG player’s stick to make it 4-2.
Jonathan Matsumoto scored BG’s second power-play goal just 1:55 later to bring it to 4-3 as the Falcons refused to die, but couldn’t get themselves over the hump.
“You feel like with five minutes to go we’re going to pound one in, you just kind of felt the tides turning,” said BG senior tri-captain Alex Rogosheske of the final period. “Then (Curtis) Fraser makes a nice play and puts a goal in — just kind of breaks your backs and that was just kind of the story of the weekend.”
“You got to tip your hat to them,” he added. “They came into our barn — stole the show and really took it to us all weekend.”
After Fraser’s goal with just 1:02 left in the game to seal the deal, Jason Grinevitch added an empty-net goal as UAF held off a BG onslaught in the third that saw them outshoot the Nanooks 17-9 for a 37-33 edge on the night.
It wasn’t enough, as the Nanooks became the first visiting team to leave the BGSU Ice Arena with a first-round series win, giving BG head coach Scott Paluch his sixth straight playoff defeat.
“To go on the road in the playoffs is always a tough thing and they played extremely well,” said Paluch. “I was proud of the way our guys left it out there in the third, but it was certainly a disappointing weekend for our team and our seniors.
“I thought Wylie Rogers was outstanding on the weekend and made all the key saves when he had to make them,” he added. “Our start was important, but you got to give credit to Fairbanks, they kind of came at us and that’s the mark of a good team.”
Sigalet, playing in his final game for the Falcons, made 27 saves on 32 shots as he allowed an unlikely 11 goals on the weekend.
“Knowing what he has gone through you have to give the kid a lot of respect,” said Lee of the scoring success. “We knew that if we just got in front of him and got traffic in front of him that we’d get to him.”
MacMillan had told his team how work ethic would give them a playoff edge and the Nanooks outworked the Falcons for most of the two games, whether it was forechecking or speed.
“We talked of how these series wouldn’t be won on skill, but would be won on work ethic,” MacMillan said. “Courage, desire and heart — and that was one thing I thought our team didn’t play with the first time we came here — and I thought we did that this weekend, which kind of enabled us to have success.”
The Nanooks will stay in BG till Tuesday before heading up I-75 to Detroit, where they will play in the CCHA quarterfinals on Thursday. Their opponent is yet to be determined.